Every year between 1976 and 1993 around 360 tons of placenta were collected from British hospitals and taken to France. Mothers were rarely told what happened to the organs that kept their babies alive in the womb, but Merieux UK, the pharmaceutical company collecting the placentas, paid maternity units pounds 5.50 per box of 15 to 18. But profit was not the hospitals' motive. 'It wasn't much money,' said one midwife, 'just enough to pay for the staff Christmas party each year.'
The placentas are used to manufacture the protein albumin for use in emergencies, especially for people who have suffered serious burns. The other drug made from placentas is the enzyme glucoceribrocidase, which is
prescribed for people suffering from a rare genetic disorder called Gaucher's disease which makes their digestive systems unable to break down fats.
Britain has become the first EC country to ban the collection of human placentas, because of new regulations about screening blood products to avoid HIV infection. Merieux fears that if other countries follow suit there will not be enough enzyme to treat Gaucher's disease sufferers; at present only about one third of them receive the correct amount of enzyme.
Many new mothers, no doubt, give no thought to what happens to their afterbirth. Recent medical use, however, has not been the only post-natal function of placentas. In some cultures they are highly valued and even revered. In Ghana and among the Ibo of Nigeria, the placenta is treated as the dead twin of the live baby and given full burial rites. The Seri, a North American Indian tribe, bury it under a tree which is then revered by the child throughout its life. Even in this country, some women take it home to bury it under a favourite tree or plant, says Sheila Kitzinger of the National Childbirth Trust.
In her latest book, Ourselves as Mothers (Bantam, pounds 5.99), she writes: 'The placenta or afterbirth is the object most intimately associated with the baby, . . . so it is often held in reverence. If, for example, it is buried under a tree that tree is thenceforward that child's tree throughout life. In West Africa wise men are called for placental divination. They examine it closely in order to foretell the child's future.'
The West Indian custom of counting the ridges in the cord is closely connected with this: the number of ridges is supposed to indicate the number of children the mother has still to bear. Some believe that anyone obtaining the placenta can get power over the child so it must be carefully hidden.
Another custom that is catching on with some exponents of natural childbirth is placentophagy - eating the placenta. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this can be a natural cure for postnatal depression. Wendy Jackson, who runs antenatal classes, ate her placenta after her third and fourth children were
born. The effects, she says, were astonishing.
'I suffered from terrible postnatal depression after the birth of my first two children, who are now 16 and 12 years old. I felt tearful, overwhelmingly tired and unhappy. I was plagued with the thought that life would never be the same again. I felt terribly, terribly inadequate.' These feelings lasted between the second month after the birth and the seventh.
'When I became pregnant with my third child I made a few enquiries to see whether there was any natural remedy available. I knew that Culpeper, the chain of herbalist shops, offered a freeze-dry placenta service - they don't any longer - so women could sprinkle a bit of their dried, powdered placenta on their food. I had heard of the beneficial effects of eating the placenta, for restoring the hormone balance after the birth. After all, other mammals did it, so why shouldn't I?
'I had my third child, now six, at home. After the birth, the midwife cut off a few very small pieces of placenta and placed them in my mouth. It was like no other taste. If I had to describe it I would say it was like a rich mushroom and wine pate, very creamy and luxurious and not a bit like liver. Then my father, who has a very strong stomach, cut up some more and I ate it with cucumber on rye bread.
'I continued eating it for every meal for about three or four days. I had it fried with bacon and salad. I loved it. I used to wake up at night craving it. When I had finished it, I really missed the first meal I had without it, but after that, I didn't mind. I felt extremely healthy and fit and the dreaded depression never arrived.'
Wendy Jackson did the same with her fourth baby, now three years old; once again she did not experience postnatal depression.
Another mother, Mary Field, also believes that eating the placenta was helpful. 'I feel it kept my hormone levels balanced and so contributed to me feeling fit and healthy after my second birth instead of the dreadful washed- out look and dry skin I had before,' she writes in New Generation, a magazine about childbirth.
Active birth proponents recommend that mothers should not allow the midwife to pull the placenta out. Rather, they should let it come naturally. In her book Active Birth (Unwin, pounds 9.99), Janet Balaskas describes delivering the placenta spontaneously as an 'orgasmic pleasure'.
Despite Merieux's attempts to negotiate with the Department of Health over placenta collection, it is most likely the organ will now be disposed of along with other hospital waste. Yet Ishbel Kargar, of the Association of Radical Midwives, believes the end of placenta collection should be seen as an addition to the rights of women.
'Many women were not informed that their placentas were being used for drug manufacture and would have objected, given the choice,' she says.-